A memorable line — in poetry or prose — is a double-edged sword. If it is packed with meaningful words that together suggest a sense of balance and fluidity, the sentence becomes a minor act of writerly triumph and is all the better for being memorable. But once this balance is disturbed, even a little, a given sequence of words begins to exist on the page only as a cheap mnemonic device, and a memorable line becomes a curse impossible to lift. Consider the number of catchy advertising slogans that now constitute the background noise of our years, little unforgettable ditties that we would fain forget. Memorability, then, is not always counted as a high virtue in the gospel of poetry.
Yet great poems, at least those written during the pre-modernist era, tended to be easily remembered by their readers. This was a time when strictures of rhyme and metre, before being thrown overboard in their entirety by the enfants terribles of 20th-century arts, still held value. Poems by William Blake, for example, with their AABB or ABAB rhymes
(though there are countless exceptions to this rule), can indeed be easily committed to memory, in contrast to something more purposely prosaic and colloquial by the many poets who arrived later, wanting to find music in the song of the mundane.
“Memory, hither come,” wrote Blake, “And tune your merry notes.” Once read, this line can’t easily be forgotten. It helps here that the word “memory” finds a disjointed echo in “your merry” in the second sentence, lending a strange euphony to it. I suppose a lesser poet would have thought of ending the second line with something rhyming with “come”, and
have thwarted the poetic flow at the very outset.
The writer and critic Clive James once wrote that a great poem doesn’t have to have sentences ending in rhymes. Rather, each word of every sentence should rhyme with the other. This, of course, is not to be applied literally. James meant to say that all words in a sentence must complement each other, must contribute to the making of a poetic image. We could replace the word rhyme here with harmony. This is the promise of a great poem: inner harmony. And this is one quality that makes a poem memorable.
Among modern poets, Philip Larkin is ranked high in my personal pantheon. When the novelist Martin Amis described Larkin’s poems as “instantly unforgettable”, I knew exactly what he meant. Larkin’s poems have found a home in my memory, even though I have never made a conscious effort to memorise them (as I have with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I’ll get to later). Sometimes, a Larkin poem comes to me in a sequence of sorts. I recall phrases, then a sentence, then whole passages. I don’t know which poem the following comes from but I am confident that, quoting from memory, I am able to get the words exactly right: “…the shorelines of incoming past is where we live/ and it is air we breathe.”
Actually, now that I have checked, I didn’t, to my embarrassment, get the words right. Larkin wrote “tidelines of incoming past”, which is so much better and more accurate than “shorelines”. I botched up the piece. And for months, if not years, I had been reciting to myself this mangled version of Larkin’s poem, whose very name I had forgotten.
It would perhaps have helped had I done with Larkin what I did with Shakespeare: try learning the poems by rote.
This was a task I had set myself some time ago: to memorise one Shakespeare sonnet a day. With a clean conscience, it would have taken me 154 days to complete this assignment, equal to the number of sonnets composed by the bard. The enterprise seemed, initially, somewhat romantic at best, quixotic at worst. But all the same, it turned out to be a depressively business-minded and organised approach to poetry. At one point, I even thought of putting up a chart
somewhere on the wall — or better yet, some kind of calendar — where I’d punctually cross out the numbers memorised, annexing Shakespeare’s terrain one sonnet at a time. It goes without saying that the plan didn’t come through. The tedium put me off the sonnets as a whole (I still don’t own a copy).
Great poets like W.H. Auden and Joseph Brodsky were also great interpreters and teachers of poetry. Both taught in colleges, Auden in England and Brodsky in America. And when it came to teaching poetry, both were great believers in rote learning.
Rote learning a poem requires discipline that borders on the mechanical (the term “rote”, in the dictionary, is defined as “the use of memory usually with little intelligence”). Frustrated in my attempts, I reasoned my way out of this business of memorising Shakespeare by refusing to subject something as sacred as a poem to mechanical routine. In reality, I was a man defeated, for the job had proved exceptionally difficult and demanding.
Great poets like W.H. Auden and Joseph Brodsky were also great interpreters and teachers of poetry. Both taught in colleges, Auden in England and Brodsky in America. And when it came to teaching poetry, both were great believers in rote learning. Auden went so far as to tell his students to not bother with the meaning of a poem when memorising it. The meaning, he used to say, can follow the process of memorising, of assimilating a poem. If Auden were to oversee my Shakespeare Memory Project — let’s call it that — he would have proved a strict taskmaster, and would have further rapped me on the knuckles over my careless handling of Larkin.
I often read Hindi poetry these days — sometimes in translation but mostly in the original. Though Hindi was my first language, I have had to, after neglecting it for years, rediscover it. Still, having spent a couple years reacquainting
myself with the language — through its best poets — I find it a greater strain to memorise a couplet or a quatrain in Hindi than something longer in English. I often wonder why that is so. In the years past, during my turn away from Hindi and towards English, just how much did I manage to forget of my first language? Even today, a sentence written in Hindi
appears to me as if through a haze of forgetfulness — resisting the grasp of memory. Which is why I believe that these lines, by the Hindi poet Vinod Kumar Shukla (translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra) were written for me: “Trying to remember I realise/ Just how much I forget.”